I started my countdown of the top ten reasons why I love living in Budapest back in 2010 and never made it quite past No. 4. That’s not to say that the last year or so hasn’t given me reason to change my mind – but I’ve hardly been here. I’ve been back a month now, without any trips, and am finally rediscovering what’s so great about. So different. So unique.
There is an abbreviation that is bandied about by some in Budapest – OIH – used to describe certain things about life in the city that could happen only in Hungary. Other than the language, methinks that everything that happens here, happens somewhere else as well. I’ve had crap customer service here; I’ve had crap customer service in Ireland. I’ve had to deal with bureaucracy here; I’ve had to deal with bureaucracy in the States. I’ve heard tales of crooked politicians and dubious deals that could have happened the world over – just with a cast of different actors speaking a different language. I’m under no illusions about this city, or this country; I have my moments of doubt and worry and concern about its future.
But I live here by choice. And one of the many reasons I find it so engaging is that so often it simply doesn’t make sense. Just when you think you have a handle on it, it literally defies all reason. Quintus Horatius Flaccus, a Roman poet from about 65 BC suggested we ‘mix a little foolishness with [our] serious plans; it’s lovely to be silly at the right moment.’ The National Theatre is one fine example of how Flaccus was taken literally, by someone. When I first saw it back in 2007, I was pretty impressed at the audacity of it; the brazenness. But as the the giant corporates have pitched their offices right next door and are gradually encroaching on the garden-cum-statue park, it simply begs the question: where are the planners?
We architects and urban planners aren’t the visible symbols of oppression, like the military or the police. We’re more sophisticated, more educated, and more socially conscious. We’re the soft cops.
– Robert Goodman, After the Planners
Coincidently, I watched Dustin Hoffman play Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death of Salesman the other night. I remembered seeing the statue of Tímár József’s in the same role a few years back in the gardens of the Nemzeti Színház and went back to see it again. It captures the essence of the character beautifully. In a not-so-rare flight of fancy, this time though, I saw him as even more depressed. More tired. More weary. The big buildings are closing in around him; the green park that once fanned behind him, is now a building site; the wire fence is coming closer and closer as every piece of available land is taken over by commerce.
I believe there was a big hue and cry when this Nemzeti Színház was first envisaged, commissioned, designed, and built. It was before my time. It’s such a shame that it is being hemmed in by glass and concrete. And that the frontage has been lost to nothingness. It’s such a shame that no-one seems to take pride in it; that is has become a national symbol for cronyism and political meddling in the arts. But as John Huston says, in his role of Noah Cross in the movie Chinatown, ‘Politicians, ugly buildings, and whores all get respectable, if they last long enough.’ It’s still worth a visit.